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Game Music

Presence of Perfection: Symphonic Fantasies Stockholm Report

Presence of Perfection: Symphonic Fantasies Stockholm Report

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In 2009, the most beautiful video game symphony was performed in the cultural meeting place of Germany, Cologne. Fans from all over the world rushed to the Cologne Philharmonic Hall in excitement and anticipation of what was touted as the very best orchestrated video game concert of all time, based on the timeless works over the years by Square Enix, showcasing their greatest titles throughout their history in suites of unparalleled beauty and splendor. On September 12th, 2009, the day finally arrived when the world experienced Symphonic Fantasies, the greatest video game symphony of all time.

The legacy that Symphonic Fantasies left behind shook the industry by its core. No longer was the idea of video game music performed by an orchestra enough, the concept evolved and the emotions, the stories and the essence of each game was emphasized to bring the true nature of the game’s soul and heart out for the listener to feel, embrace and cherish. It is now 3 years since the event took place in Cologne, bringing all corners of the world together in a philharmonic hall, and as the concept has kept on growing, so has Symphonic Fantasies in the memories of those who heard it, and the anticipation and demand increasing, with fans eager to experience for themselves what the sell out audience in Cologne spoke so much of after 2009. After the incredible success in Tokyo for their January shows, the team ventured to Stockholm, Sweden in order to showcase just exactly why so many fans from around the world have spoken of its magnificence.

Check out the report from event after the jump.

It was clear from early on that the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra were excited and enthusiastic to be performing Symphonic Fantasies in front of the audience that always support them for each and every video game concert they perform. Weeks leading up to the concert, newspaper articles, elaborate banners and viral marketing filled Stockholm despite the immediate sellout of the tickets available. Here was a concert that not only would take the breath away from the listener, but also challenge and excite the performers themselves due to the extravagant arrangements, provided by Jonne Valtonen. The fans filled the concert hall area hours leading up the concert, smiles on their faces and sun shining on Stockholm, a day which was feeling closer and closer to the very definition of a perfect day.

As the audience took to their seats and applauded the entrance of the orchestra performers, there was an aura of familiarity in the air. These fans are seasoned and for most, this is not their first time walking in the concert hall and greeting the orchestra. They deeply respect the performers, they know the games by heart, and they are already familiar with the productions of Thomas Böcker. Silence befalls the room, with smiles and nodding approval exchanged by friends and families visually confirming their excitement. On stage, a tall, interesting man appears with a microphone in hand, smiling ear to ear as he sees the sell out audience that are moments away from experiencing what he already knows will be an unforgettable evening. Orvar Säfström might look like a character out of a video game himself with his height, long hair and characteristic sideburns, but all in attendance are familiar with his contributions and passion for the video game industry, he himself even producing orchestrated video game soundtracks in the city of Malmø. But for this night, he was on hand to present each piece, and with his charm and honesty, the fans hung onto his every word.

The first piece of the night is Jonne Valtonen’s original composition, the “Fanfare Overture”, a traditional styled fanfare to introduce the orchestra proper, with an elegant yet playful melody that perfectly sets the tone for the event. Valtonen Manages in 3 minutes to prove that he not only can excite the audience and familiarize them with the orchestra, but also compose an original piece which feels natural and belonging side by side with the music composed by 4 of the most prolific and well respected composers in the video game industry. For many, his name might feel synonymous with arrangements and orchestrating, but given the chance, Valtonen can also become one of the most competent and exciting composers, a side of him which we will hopefully be able to hear and enjoy in the future.

Säfström introduced to the audience to the world of Kingdom Hearts, leading them into a grand applause for the first “Fantasy” of the night. This “Fantasy” was set to be very interesting due to the absence of piano virtuoso Benyamin Nuss. Tonight saw Stefan Lindgren on the piano leading the orchestra through the cheerful though highly dramatic landscape of Kingdom Hearts. It was immediately clear that the arrangement had matured over the 3 years, and several parts were now expanded and retooled. The piano parts are more elaborate than ever before, with several new passages added and more flowing transitions. The string sections were also much more grandiose, as they would remain for the entirety of the concert. The suite also remains highly romantic, and as vividly full of charm and theatrical touches as one would remember it. The more immediate differences that prior attendees could hear was the absolutely magnificent horn section to the orchestra, would near literally blow one back into the seat and made the each arrangements feel even larger than ever before.

The second suite, or “Fantasy” was then introduced by Säfström, who came back onto the stage, eyes visibly full of tears, though he would not be the only one mere moments later. Secret of Mana was announced to a wild applause from the Swedish audience, proving that despite the game not being today the generally most well known of Squaresoft’s classic titles, it is deeply loved and treasured by the longtime fans around the world. The arrangement of Mana from Symphonic Fantasies is one of the most beautiful arrangements ever made for video game music of any kind, and is not one that can simply be felt by listening, the trembling of the powerful choir, the atmosphere of the green nature surrounding your senses, Mana is not just a mere performance, but a true experience, and the one that truly opens out to a view of marvelous grandeur. It was here that the orchestra truly proved that they are in a league of their own, a world class orchestra near unrivaled. Every note, every stroke, every breath, it all leads to the creation of the world of Mana in front of your very eyes. The Katarina Choir was a unique unit with members ranging from the age 6 to 60, children to adults together, one generation helping the next, and resulted in an immensely powerful sound perfect for Mana, with the young spirits mentored by the wiser guard.

It is also here that one should take note of the conductor of the night, Andreas Hanson. Hanson was the ideal teacher, a motivator and leader. Hanson conducted the orchestra with grace, sensitivity, and brought the best out of each and every member on stage. During rehearsal, he would fill the empty concert hall with laughter and calm, but never lost the attention of each and every individual. He was precise, passionate, and made all the musicians and singers feel a pride in what they do, and inspired them all to be their very best. During Mana, tears began to slowly be shed, like the rain drops in Mana which can be felt so strongly. As the rain faded out, the audience came unglued, giving the suite a standing ovation and the choir their much deserved erupted appreciation.

It is a bit of a special situation for Europe on the subject of Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. The two games were never released anywhere in the continent until the Nintendo DS version in 2009, when Chrono Trigger finally saw its first official release here. Despite this, the soundtracks for both the legendary titles have traveled all over the world due to its incredible quality, much ahead of its time, and many in attendance were holding onto their official soundtrack albums in hopes of getting them signed or to simply show their support. It was therefore a very special occasion when Yasunori Mitsuda was announced to be in attendance, and took a bow to the thousand of screaming fans who for some many years loved and supported a game franchise that was never officially released in their territory.

“Fantasy III – Chrono Trigger\Cross” blends the musical worlds of the two games together by often layering them ontop of one another, a now trademark of the co-arranger Roger Wanamo, to great impact on the audience at hand. The piece is more rhythmically structured due to the middle eastern percussion mixed with the Celtic influences that Mitsuda is so well known for. For many, the end of this arrangement became the most memorable moment of the original concert, amazing everyone by having the main themes of both games crossed and performed at the same time, alternating their appearance in the forefront. In Stockholm, the ending moment could not have been any better, with the majestic horns blaring so impressively as the high tempo was kept by all the performers. The transitions were more intricate for this reworked arrangement, and the Darbuka, while still the rhythmical centerpiece to the piece, was more subdued and balanced out than in Cologne. This might have due to the absence of Rony Barrak. Barrak, as incredible and charismatic he is, was positioned on the front of the stage, which tends to draw the eyes and ears towards him, but the performer was now placed further back, and as such more balance was achieved for the live performance. The concertmaster for the evening was also an absolute thrill to watch, giving the string section a heartfelt and emotional lead which really brought out the best of the arrangement.

Of course, the mere mention of Final Fantasy will cause an explosive showcase of enthusiasm and outlet of excitement from any audience, and Stockholm was no different as they prepared themselves for the last Fantasy of the night. The orchestra brought out everything they had for the near 20 minute suite, and never sounded better than it has in Stockholm on June 9th. It was especially during the “Phantom Forest” that the arrangement truly gives a dense sense of atmosphere, though the entirety of the suite is an absolutely incredible rendition of each song. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra were able to play the suite at a more proper tempo than what one heard in Cologne in 2009, and as such each part felt more immediate, more powerful along with a more concentrated progression and improved transitions, and the choir the same. One can never get enough of the “One Winged Angel” getting interrupted by the “Chocobo” theme, and as expected, the audience reacted with laughter and smiles at the now famous moment in the arrangement, while soon after they were wiping their tears from the choir’s impeccable efforts on the Prelude.

Thunderous applause, tears flowing and cheers uninterrupted, the concert hall could no longer hold in their excitement as the show came to a conclusion, giving a standing ovation to the orchestra, Jonne Valtonen, Roger Wanamo and Mitsuda who joined the stage to receive their flowers and praise. However, the night was not yet quite over before the final battle had been fought, and so the orchestra began the “Final Boss Suite”, the highly dramatic encore. The encore brings the astonishing final battle themes from each game together, with the “One Winged Angel” even uninterrupted, blended with “Kefka” to absolute success. Though the structure remains more traditional than the other pieces performed, it feels as appropriate and inspiring as the other longer pieces, and climaxes the concert perfectly.

In Stockholm, Symphonic Fantasies became alive, bringing new life to the world of Kingdom Hearts, Secret of Mana, Chrono and Final Fantasy. The audience are taken on a journey that remains so powerful that tears and emotions are provoked, taking your breath away at every note. It is not only a concert that remains a cherished memory, it is an experience, one that makes you think, makes you feel, influencing your very own fantasies. In Stockholm, Symphonic Fantasies proved once again that it is the greatest video game symphony of all time, and its journey is, hopefully, not yet concluded.


© Photo: Tobias Carlsson

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